December 4, 2007
DURHAM Joe Alleva didn't expect to spend part of the 2007 holidays looking for a new football coach.
Duke's athletic director went into the season and continued at least halfway through it firmly committed to giving coach Ted Roof the 2008 season to prove himself, despite a 3-31 record in the previous three years. That was the plan Alleva and Roof pitched to a number of former Duke players in January, at the meeting the school grandly named "The First Annual Football Summit."
Those ex-players, many disgruntled by Duke's dismal football showing in the last decade, were told that the university had made a new commitment to their sport and that Roof was making tangible progress in resuscitating what was once upon a time (back when John F. Kennedy was president) the ACC's best football program. Roof and Alleva warned that there still might be some struggles in 2007, but they promised that Duke would be bowl-eligible in 2008.
Nothing that happened through the first week of October changed that prognosis. Duke ended a 22-game losing streak with a victory at Northwestern and should have beaten Navy in Annapolis the next week. Close, competitive losses to Miami and Wake Forest were frustrating, but they did nothing to change Alleva's timetable.
However, Roof's future at Duke began to unravel on Oct. 13, when the Blue Devils turned in a lackluster performance against a Virginia Tech team that had been struggling on offense up to that point. When equally dismal showings against Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech followed, Alleva's faith in Roof's promised progress began to waver.
"You don't go from being a losing team to a winning team overnight," Roof said. "First, you go from being a losing team to a competitive team, then you become a winning team."
But Duke was not competitive in October and early November. That led to a fateful meeting between Alleva and Roof in the days before the Notre Dame game on Nov. 17. When Roof argued that the team's most recent problems were due to the quality of the competition, Alleva pointed out that the Devils were closing the season against two of the weakest teams on their schedule 1-9 (at the time) Notre Dame and 3-7 (soon to be 3-8) North Carolina.
Alleva warned Roof that his job would hang on his team's 2007 body of work, which came as a shock to a coach who thought he was safe through 2008.
We all know what happened next. Duke went out and embarrassed itself on national television at Notre Dame. On a cold, wet, miserable day in South Bend, Duke managed just 282 yards and seven points against a team that had given up 87 points the two previous weeks against a pair of service academy teams.
While Alleva insisted that Roof was not fired until the Sunday night after the North Carolina loss a week later, he was just playing games with semantics. Technically, the official firing didn't come until after the UNC game. But in reality, Roof was gone after his team dropped the stink bomb on NBC at Notre Dame.
"It boiled down to the fact that I did not see enough progress on the field to warrant bringing Ted back," Alleva said. "It comes down to the point where you need to win some games. ... There was a point after the Notre Dame game where I felt the handwriting might be on the wall."
Unfortunately, Roof didn't win many games just six in four-plus seasons since replacing Carl Franks midway through the 2003 campaign. He was 6-45 overall and 3-33 in ACC play (with two of those wins coming in his first half-season in 2003). He leaves his successor with a 25-game ACC losing streak and a 16-game home losing streak.
MORE LEEWAY FOR NEXT GUY?
When Alleva announced Roof's dismissal on the Monday after Duke's overtime loss at North Carolina, he sounded very confident about his ability to land a "proven Division I-A head coach," preferably one with a background in running some kind of wide-open offense.
But reporters were skeptical. After all, Alleva has had two chances to hire the right coach at Duke, and on both occasions, he ended up with an unproven assistant with no head coaching experience.
Alleva replaced Fred Goldsmith, a two-time national coach of the year who led Duke to its last bowl game, with Franks, a former Duke tight end who had never even been a coordinator. After firing Franks midway though the 2003 season, Alleva promoted Roof at the time the team's defensive coordinator to interim head coach, then after a fruitless coaching search after the season, made Roof the permanent head coach.
Why, one writer asked Alleva, did he think he could make a better hire this time?
"Nobody has a crystal ball when it comes to picking coaches," Alleva said. "The two coaches that I hired were young assistant coaches that I felt had real promise. I think this time I need to hire someone who has been a head coach."
That doesn't really answer the question. In truth, Alleva bears great responsibility for his misjudgment in the Franks hire. That was solely his doing and was made without a real search. Several promising candidates were very interested in the Duke job in 1998, including then-Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, who couldn't even get an interview.
It was a different story after the 2003 season. Alleva did try to find a qualified coach, but he discovered that Duke's football decline was so great and skepticism about the Duke job in the coaching community was so widespread that he didn't really have much choice but to keep Roof and remove the interim tag.
What has changed in the last four years that makes Alleva think he now can land a proven head coach and not gamble on another "promising" assistant or a washed-up has-been?
The answer lies in something Duke calls "The Strategic Plan for Duke Football," which is essentially a study of similar schools that try to balance athletics and academics and is geared toward formulating a way to do the same thing successfully at Duke.
"We went around to 22 schools and gathered a lot of information about how other schools do things how they recruit, the type of kids they get into school, their budgets," Alleva said. "That information is helpful to put together a plan that is specific to Duke University.
"I believe that the coach is the key. With the right budget and the right facilities, the coach is the one who has to attract the student-athletes."
Alleva insisted that the university is committed to pursuing the same excellence in football that the men's basketball team and most other Blue Devil sports teams have achieved. He points to the five-year-old Yoh Football Center as a symbol of that commitment and also cites money spent on new practice fields and recruiting (claiming that Duke has the largest recruiting budget in the ACC), plus planned renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium.
Still, Duke's chances of landing a quality head coach depend on what leeway the Blue Devils will offer when it comes to academics. Franks and Roof had to operate under the most restrictive recruiting standards in the league. Although frequently compared to Wake Forest in that area, there are a number of players on the Deacons' roster that Duke was not allowed to pursue.
The details of the Strategic Plan are secret, but there is some indication that it will recommend more recruiting flexibility for Duke football. The school is not going to recruit the NCAA-minimum athletes who are a staple at most of the state institutions in the league, but could the new coach get the same leeway as Wake Forest and Boston College also smaller, private institutions which have combined higher-than-normal academic standards with athletic success?
That's a question that Alleva couldn't answer in public, telling reporters, "We will not compromise our academic standards."
But Duke is ready to compromise to some degree. The question nobody can answer is this: Will it be enough of a compromise?
The public should be able to tell the answer to that by Alleva's eventual hire. If Duke does indeed lure a successful, working I-A head coach, then you can bet he was promised recruiting flexibility similar to that of the Deacons and Eagles. If the Devils aren't willing to make that kind of academic compromise, then the new coach will have just about the same chance for success as Franks or Roof.